The Changing of Keys (forthcoming from Regal House Publishing, fall 2024)
There was a time when the world was nothing but blazing sun. Other people measured the passage of days in terms of wet season and dry, cane planting and burning, but none of that meant anything to me.
What I knew was sun and dark, the latter a nothing, a time in which I slept and did not exist, but the former an invasion by God’s eye, his blinding, relentless eye, which illuminated everything, turning the water in the bay a strange graphite blue and making every object leap from its background as if outlined in ebony pencil. The sun-world was extra-dimensional, unnaturally bright. A world of holograms. I used to think the sun could see right through me, exposing the bones inside, like Mother’s X-rays. Mother said God’s eye is everywhere.
She never said his ear was everywhere. Maybe because she didn’t like to remind herself that hers were dying. That’s how I thought of them, anyway – fainting, withering little cochleae in the twilight chamber of her head, coughing their last in the penthouse sickroom atop her thin, tough, indefatigable body. Nothing else about her ever stopped. Certainly not her expectations. But the ears languished on in a kind of permanent invalidism that only made her vision sharper.
We lived in those years on Duke of Gloucester Street, near the end where it almost touches South Cove. Ten feet beyond our hedge, the pavement turned to sand and became a path through the scrub palms that cluttered the shore nearly to the water’s edge. The palms weren’t tall enough to provide shade, but because I was so small, I could hide behind them and peek through their spiky fronds as if through my own fingers, sheltering a little from the prying sun when we went to bathe. I would watch Mother and my father sitting on a blanket with the radio they always brought down to the beach: my mother impassively upright in the wooden chair she preferred to sit on – small and unyielding, just like her – my father sprawled on his back with his shirt unbuttoned, exposing his soft, always-pasty stomach, his arms crossed over his face.
They listened to opera. Mother could barely hear even the loudest voices, but in spite of that, she could tell when my father was humming along and would shush him curtly, as if seeing him enjoy the music offended her. She would guess at the names of the arias and he would grunt very softly – an almost imperceptible laugh in the sound – if she were wrong. She couldn’t detect it; it was his refuge, for no one wanted Mother to hear that she was wrong.
But if she guessed right, he would reach up and pat her knee, and there was still tenderness in the touch. I remember that he patted her very gently.
We went down to the beach nearly every weekend, as soon as my father had dismissed his last class and carefully dusted the harp and two pianos, locking the room behind him. He wouldn’t permit the janitor to touch the instruments; instead, he kept a stack of soft cloths in a cabinet and polished the smooth, black wood, the yellow keys and the ornate, gilded harp frame himself, singing a little or stopping to strike a few chords. When I was finally old enough to attend school, I would report to him at the end of the last day each week and watch him do this, impatient to get home and change and sink my feet into the sand at the water’s edge.
I was eight when I stopped being able to remember his face.